Aaron "The Prototype" Rome
Photo courtesy wikimedia commons
It’s "Canucks team needs" week here at Canucks Army and already we’ve taken a look at some options the Canucks might have to improve their bottom-six centre depth, and their secondary scoring this offseason. Let’s turn our attention to the blue-line, supposedly a strength of this club.
While the Canucks arguably lack a dominant "1A defenceman," there should be no doubt that in Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison the Vancouver Canucks have four very good top-four guys. In Chris Tanev, who is a restricted free-agent this summer, and Frank Corrado, Vancouver’s system has some intriguing young depth as well. What the Canucks lacked a year ago, as evidenced by the fourteen games Cam Barker played, was credible defensive depth. It’s an issue likely to be exacerbated this summer by the probable departure of unrestricted free-agent Andrew Alberts and expensive liability Keith Ballard.
Wither Aaron Rome? We’ll break it all down after the jump.
Late last season, when the Canucks called up twenty-six year old journeyman Derek Joslin, assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman explained the move in a Team1040 interview. He gave Matt Sekeres and Blake Price a really interesting quote actually, one that elaborated on the organization’s philosophy as it pertains to depth blue-liners:
"Well, I’ve said it many times that a competitive team like ours, if you want to build a team that has a chance you’ve gotta have depth on the blueline. When we set out to build the team we billed our model with 8 defenseman on the NHL side, but we also sought out players who were going to be 9th, 10th, 11th guys who had the ability to play in the NHL. Derek’s a good example.
He’s a guy who over the last number of years has played up and down in the NHL… he’s an effective guy and he’s a safe bet to come up and pitch in if we need it. I mean he’s a credible, serviceable depth NHL player."
All told, Mike Gillis’s quest for defensive depth is a long standing theme of his tenure as Cancuks General Manager. This has been by necessity, after all the team has employed Sami Salo for the majority of Gillis’s tenure. Ultimately the Canucks haven’t used fewer than ten different defenceman in any season since 2008-09 (when they still used nine different blue-liners).
Heading into this summer, and assuming that Keith Ballard and Andrew Alberts have played their last games in a Canucks uniform, the team is only seven defenceman deep along the blue-line (Hamhuis, Garrison, Edler, Bieksa, Tanev (RFA), Corrado, Joslin (RFA)). The club re-signed AHL puck mover Patrick Mullen to a two-way deal on Tuesday, but beyond that we get into names like "Peter Andersson" and "Adam Polasek" among a handful of others players who are a stretch to imagine credibly chewing up minutes along an NHL blueline.
Barring some creative scouting, Vancouver’s defensive depth will probably sustain a modest hit this summer (in addition to the hit they sustained last summer). You can talk all you want about the limited marginal utility of a seventh and eighth defenceman but this is an issue for the Canucks. Think about it, the Canucks leaned on Cam Barker in thirty percent of their games last season and were left in a position where they essentially had to burn a year(*) off of Frank Corrado’s entry-level contract.
(*) Burning a year of Frank Corrado’s entry-level deal was unfortunate, and something that almost certainly doesn’t happen if Chris Tanev is healthy. It was, however, absolutely the right call.
Look, I know that Aaron Rome was the Joey Fatone of the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks. But ultimately his presence was sorely missed last season, even though he’s in no way worth 1.5 million per season for a cap ceiling team like Vancouver.
In three seasons with the Canucks, Rome was an effective and versatile utility defenceman as you’ll find in the National Hockey League. You could feed him defensive zone starts, play him with literally any other defenceman on the roster, lean on him in a second or third pairing role, and count on him to adjust seamlessly between the left and right sides. In addition to bringing that sort of versatility, Aaron Rome would essentially come out even by the possession data. He wasn’t fast and he took a lot of penalties, but he was a glue guy who could fill in, be trusted to make the safe play and take the body.
The Canucks signed Aaron Rome to a two-way deal after his age 25 season, a season in which he appeared in only 8 games for Columbus in a third pairing role. He’d played in 26 NHL games in his career to that point, and his small sample underlying data was nothing special.
Rome had a productive offensive season as a twenty year old in the CHL, and consistently demonstrated some surprising offensive pop in the American Hockey League (in fact he scored six goals in seven games with the Manitoba Moose in 09-10). So there were some signs that he was skilled enough to handle himself in the National Hockey League.
Rome went on to play nearly two-thousand five hundred minutes for the Canucks over three seasons, providing extraordinary value considering the cost of his two Vancouver deals. He also spent more than one-hundred even-strength minutes with eight(!) different Canucks defenceman over three seasons (Ballard, Bieksa, Tanev, Salo, Hamhuis, Alberts, Edler and Ehrhoff), a testament to both Rome’s versatility and the collective inability of Canucks defenceman to stay healthy.
So how does one find a comparable depth piece to Aaron Rome on the open market? It’s not an exact science, and it’s almost certainly not a trick that the Canucks can just snap their fingers and replicate. I’d think that the key is to take a risk on a group six free-agent, a player with some NHL experience but whose prime years are still ahead of him(*).
(*) Remember when the Canucks played Marc-Andre Gragnani down the stretch so that he’d qualify as a restricted free-agent? Restricted Free Agents are "Group 2" Free Agents, while players aged 25 or older who haven’t played in at least 80 NHL games over three professional seasons – like Marc-Andre Gragnani in 2011/12 – are "Group 6."
This is just another one of the many tasks facing Mike Gillis and the Canucks front office this summer, but to their credit, they’ve been pretty good at identifying helpful players at the fringes of the NHL in the past (Tambellini, Tanev, Ebbett, Volpatti, Weise, Wellwood etc.).
Possible In-House Options
Derek Joslin is okay, I guess.
Image via circling the wagon.
In the Laurence Gilman quote that leads off the "Diagnosis" section of this piece, Vancouver’s Assistant General Manager says that the Canucks look to have eight defenceman at the NHL level, in addition to having 9th, 10th, 11th guys who have the chops to fill in on the NHL roster, but spend the majority of their time in the American Hockey League. Corrado proved down the stretch a year ago that he’s not out of place in a third-pairing role at the NHL level. Still, in an ideal world he’s going to spend his age 20 season logging major minutes in Utica, as opposed to being a regular at optional skates and occassionally filling in on the third-pairing.
Though the Canucks have used (not burned, used) the first year of Corrado’s entry-level contract, the priority with his usage next season should still be on "player development" as opposed to "helpful depth."
I hadn’t realized this at the outset of writing this post, but the Canucks will retain Derek Joslin’s rights as a restricted free-agent so long as they tender him a qualifying offer later this month.
That’s good news, and Joslin makes some sense as an eighth or ninth defenceman on the depth-chart. Joslin has been a pretty abysmal possession player at the NHL level over the past few seasons, though the underlying data looks worse because of the time he spent as a fourth-line forward in Carolina during the 2011-12 campaign. Joslin is 26, so there’s still some room for improvement. He’s been a productive offensive player at the OHL and AHL levels, and he’s versatile enough to fill in on the either the right of left point (though he’s best suited to the left-side).
I still don’t really see Andersson as an NHL caliber prospect, certainly not without significant improvements to his skating. He’s another guy who, if he’s going to make it in the National Hockey League, probably needs to be getting burn in the American Hockey League as opposed to being a taxi squad regular.
I’ll be curious to see if Sauve even gets a qualifying offer this summer, or if the Canucks just cut him loose. I wouldn’t be surprised either way. I doubt that he’s ready to be a semi-regular fill in on a third pairing at the NHL level.
The Open Market
You could do worse than Tyson Strachan.
Image via wikimedia commons.
There are a few interesting bets the Canucks could make with Group 6 free-agents on the open market, and a couple of pretty solid older depth guys as well. The Canucks need to fill out the Utica Comets roster this summer anyway, and once they’ve tendered qualifying offers to players we expect to recieve them (Kellen Lain Chris Tanev, Darren Archibald, Dale Weise, Jordan Schreoder and maybe Derek Joslin, Yann Sauve and Bill Sweatt) they’ll have space to add roughly ten additional contracts before hitting the 50 deal max. So they can afford to take a couple of swings at some of the depth defenders on the market.
We’d also mention that the names available could, and probably will, change between now and July 5th. There are surely some defenceman around the league whom teams will use compliance buyouts on. Buyout candidates could be another source of bargain bin shopping items for the Canucks.
In terms of relatively known quantities there are guys like Adam Pardy, Mark Fistric, Ryan O’Byrne, Scott Hannan, Tyson Strachan and Mike Kostka available on the market this summer. These are the sorts of players who, I’m sure, will be looking for top-six jobs but are probably better suited to being seventh or eighth defenceman.
There’s also our old pal Dylan Reese.
In terms of group six free-agents with limited track records, guys who might be worth gambling on, there’s the likes of Bobby Sanguinetti, Taylor Chorney, Ty Wishart, Brett Bellemore, Chris Summers, and Matt Pelech.
In terms of the "known quantities" I actually quite like Tyson Strachan’s game. A BCHL veteran, Strachan has posted some auspicious possession numbers during his time in Florida and has a wealth of NHL experience. He’s a right-handed shot and primarily a right-side defenceman, but he’s spent nearly three-hundred minutes with Brian Campbell over the past few seasons (Campbell most commonly plays the right side) so he might bring some versatility.
In terms of the "local boys" (Mark Fistric, Ryan O’Byrne and Scott Hannan) I think you’d have to be pretty happy with any of them if they signed at an affordable clip to be a seventh or eighth defender. I don’t think that’s particularly likely, however, considering the high demand for and non-existent supply of defenceman on the open market.
In terms of fit, Fistric is a bit of a liability at five-on-five but the former Giant is a solid penalty killer and draws an awful lot of penalties somehow. Ryan O’Byrne is a massive right-handed shot who has been over his head for years and was exposed again on Toronto’s third-pairing during the 2012 postseason. As a seventh or eighth guy though, you could do a lot worse (and by a lot worse, I mean the Canucks could re-sign Cam Barker).
I thought Scott Hannan was basically finished coming out of the lockout – the 2004-05 lockout – but he played credible minutes alongside Brad Stuart against the Canucks and the Sharks in the postseason this spring. Hannan has bounced around of late, playing for three different teams over the last two years and signing consecutive one-year contracts. If the Canucks were to offer him an affordable two year deal to be their seventh or eighth defender and finish his career close to home, I wouldn’t get upset about it.
Adam Pardy was signed to a hilarious deal by Darcy Regier following the 2011-12 season, and he’s back on the market and looking at a Full Metal Jacket buzzcut this summer. Like most of the guys we’ve discussed here, he’s not "the answer" or anything to Vancouver’s blue-line depth question, but he’s alright. Also he’d be good to have on the team from my perspective just for the MSTRKRFT jokes: "ALL I DO IS PARDY AH AH AH AH!"
In terms of the group six guys, Bobby Sanguinetti is probably the most desirable. The twenty-five year old has forty-five games of NHL experience under his belt, and played most of this past season with the Hurricanes. Deployed in extremely soft minutes, Sanguinetti was at least able to maintain possession though the percentages were none to kind to him (which accounts for his -6). I’m sure he’ll have suitors on the open market this summer, and he’s a reasonable enough bet to be a useful offensive specialist depth guy.
Ty Wishart is a former 16th overall pick and at 6,4 and a couple bucks twenty he could replace some of the heft the team may lose if Andrew Alberts hits the open market. He has twenty-six games of NHL experience and while he didn’t particularly impress in any of those contests, he might be worth taking a chance on. Brett Bellemore is another player in that mold, though he’s also significantly less experienced. Same goes for Matt Pelech, who is the nephew of Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis. With roles to fill in Utica, these group six guys may make sense on two-way contracts.
The Trade Market
We know Jeff Schultz is available (albeit expensive). At 2.75 million against the cap for next season, his contract doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Canucks, but at 1.325 (if Washington agreed to retain half of his cap-hit and salary)? Of course, Jeff Schultz is a plodding defender and not all that good.
Depending on who decides to "sell" at the draft, there could be other, better defenders available. It’s probably not worth forfeiting any sort of asset – including a late round pick – to add a seventh or eighth defenceman, however.
There just isn’t much available in-house or on the open market in terms of credible depth defenceman this offseason. The Canucks are going to have to get creative to address this particular need, I reckon, and I’d at least expect them to qualify Derek Joslin and gamble on a group six free-agent. If they can bring in a Scott Hannan or a Tyson Strachan that would be helpful, but it might not be realistic depending on the asking price and Vancouver’s salary cap situation.